Former Commissioner for Higher Education in Delta State, Prof. Hope Eghagha, who is Head, Department of English, University of Lagos, in this interview with OBIRE ONAKEMU, calls for redefinition of security in the country. He is also of the opinion that the intelligentsias should not stay away from politics and that the Federal Government shouldn’t be involved in micro-managing the universities.
What is your take on the state of the nation?
When you speak about the state of the nation, it is a whole gamut of socio-cultural and political experience, all woven into one, that we call the Nigerian state – in terms of politics in terms of the Economics, in terms of security which is high on the scale of challenge. What should be the modus operandi to ensure that we have a better nation in consonance with the nation’s first national anthem that says though tongues and tribes may differ but in brotherhood we understand. That is the Nigeria that Nigerians want, but right now, the definition of the Nigerian nationhood has a very serious question mark. And it is being challenged; it is being interrogated; it has been seized and there is a narrative that has been seized by a small group in the country and it is putting everybody on edge.
The state of the nation, right now, is uncertain. It is split and there is doubt whether we can stay together as a group. We are in doubts whether we are really reaping dividends of democracy, whether the leaders who are elected to rule, especially at the national level, are forging the band of national unity.
You once served on the cabinet of former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State. How would you rate the governance of the polity today?
The delivery of good governance is shaped, determined by variables – economic variables, political variables, cultural variables as well as personal and social circumstances. People want good life in terms of road infrastructure, education, social and health services, among others. They have their obligation to the state and they believe that the state has an obligation towards them. For us to have a meeting point, the government has to be close enough to the people and to find out from them what they need, what they want, what is good for the society.
Once the government continues to dictate what should happen to the people, there is a gap because what the government wants to give may not be what the people need, want or desire. I don’t want to do a comparative study of administration. I just want to talk generally about good service delivery, good governance and expectation of the people. Just to say that the people themselves have the constitutional rights and access to good life. Let there be quality education. When we talk of quality education, we refer to the teaching quality, the environment, the equipment for teaching, and payment of teachers. Do not let teachers be the first casualty once there is any dislocation in the society. The people expect all of those.
Once you are in government, you measure yourself by those indices. What has been the quality of your contribution to education, infrastructure, civil services and health? And when people are ill and they go to hospitals, do they get the required and necessary life saving attention? How much does it cost to have quality health services in Nigeria generally and in each state? The government should work towards creating that kind of environment.
The people too have a role to play. The people who are the electorate who vote in this government should have a very vocal voice. We still have docile communities in Nigeria, we still have docile electorate, docile followers who don’t seem to realise their rights, their powers. The kind of power that the people of Osun State displayed in their last governorship election, the power of the ballot box. When a government is not delivering, you wait for them at the ballot box.
Although in the past, we knew the government rigged the election and manipulated results, snatched ballot boxes. But with the new scheme of things, I think that will be highly minimised and the power of the ballot box will be better entrenched. We are now saying to government: give yourself a yardstick; give yourself a milestone in all these areas of national development– education and health needs. At this moment, power generation and distribution is really on the exclusive list. You can’t get into that without the permission of the Federal Government. Time has changed! It is my view that we should get rid of the atavistic notion of the national grid. Anybody who generates power comes into the national grid. The grid does not have the backbone to accommodate new 2000 megawatts and by the time it begins to get 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 and 15,000 megawatts, it will collapse.
Security is very important. Right now, we run an anomalous constitution where the governors can attain status of chief security officers but they have no troops at their disposal. They have no security force. They depend on the goodwill of the Federal Government with their control of the armed forces and with the police force. We have reached a stage in national development where there should check and balance.
In Nigeria today, security has come to the front burner. It is something we ran away from for many years when we thought that the federal might was there to protect us. We never realised that policing ought to be local. The idea of having an Inspector General (IG) in Abuja to superintend over policing the nooks and crannies of Nigeria cannot work. This is because security, as we said, is local. You deal with persons in the environment who are familiar with the environments and you have confidence in them, you report to them, they monitor you and they show care. So, we need policemen who are from the environment. The police personnel who feel the environment and who are friends of the people of the environments, unlike the Nigeria police personnel of today who are not friendly and are very hostile to anybody.
These are some of the reasons security in the country today has to be redefined. And to redefined it means that we need a regional police force, state police force and even local police force at the local government level. Apart from the fact that it brings policing closer to the people, it creates jobs and boosts confidence in the personnel.
Policing in the Niger Delta and the creek is different from policing in the desert part of Nigeria. The requirement, the training, the skills and competence that they need are all different. For the fact that we run a federal society, let us federalise the police force as well. The fact that we are running a federal system where we have one president, we can’t say we don’t need the state governors, we don’t need House of Assembly. It can’t be so. In the same way today, because we have the federal police, we cannot say we don’t need to have the state police. It is my view that the states need their own police force. There will be areas of jurisdiction just the way we have Federal High Courts and State High Courts. We know matters that go to the Federal High Court, we know matters that go to the State High Court and we know matters that go on appeal. It’s all parts of evolution of society. So, we need to move.
Are you still a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)?
I joined the government as a technocrat. I was serving in the university when I was invited to come and serve the government. Usually, when you serve the government you identify with that party that appointed you. So, to that extent, yes, I can say I am a member of PDP. But you are interviewing me here in my University of Lagos office. I am an academic, first and foremost, who is interested in the political affairs of the country. I need to repeat that point that I was invited into government as a technocrat, served as a technocrat and because there was a party that invited me, I identify with the dreams, with the programmes and with the policies of that party. And that is what it is.
Why are the intelligentsias not showing enough interest in political leadership in the state and in the country?
As you know, intellectuals, by their training, are more interested in their intellectual pursuits both in terms of researches and their daily ways of living. Usually, the intellectuals see politics as for those who are interested in jostling for power. Besides, the political scene is so rough that people who are decent tend to say we don’t want to get involved. But everybody should be involved, everybody – whether you are an intellectual or not, whether you are an artisan, a journalist, a teacher, a business man, a civil servant– should be interested in politics. I don’t believe that intellectuals in the society should stay away from politics. We are all political animals. We have a view, we have a vision, we have ideas about how society should be run. So, why should we run away from the practical reality of our society? We should be involved! Let’s not say it is for rough people. No! If only you think politics is rough in the way it is, get in and play gentleman’s politics. After all, there was once a political leader in this country who led a party – Great Nigerians Peoples Party (GNPP), Alhaji Waziri that had a doctrine of politics without bitterness.
It is not my thinking that the intelligentsia should stay away from politics. They should be involved in policy formulation, in advising government, giving option to government, helping in developing policy frameworks and driving the economy. Intelligentsia are needed in government, they shouldn’t stay away.
What are the lasting ways to curb incessant strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU)?
ASUU has not been self-serving. The union has not been strictly concerned with bread and butter for its members. In the last 10 years, ASUU has not talked about any salary increase for academic staff. It has been basically concerned about infrastructures of the university system, libraries, provisions of books, research materials and the autonomy of the institutions. These are what ASSU has been pursuing.
This time, we are fighting the ideal. However, the bread and butter matters must be tackled too. We must have a take home – pay that can take us home. A situation where a professor does not earn up to N500, 000.00 when you have reached the peak of your profession is not acceptable.
To avoid the incessant strike in the university system, real autonomy should be granted to the institutions – run your affairs. And when I say run your affairs, it is run your affairs in terms of financing, in terms of academic programmes, in terms of how to generate funds. The Federal Government shouldn’t be involved in micro-managing the universities.
The universities working with the NUC and the Federal Ministry of Education can run their affairs. Take, for instance, the University of Lagos, a cosmopolitan university; the University of Ibadan; University of Port- Harcourt and University of Abuja, because of their locations, can do big business with property investments. Like the Federal Secretariat that was abandoned, if that facility is handed over to UNILAG to manage for the next 60 years, income from there will be used to augment funds for salary payment.
Get valuers to look at the property and evaluate it. That property can generate extra billions of naira every year. Then the Federal Government will remove that from what it sends to the university. It is an unpopular view in Nigeria today to say students should pay. There is nothing like free education in the real sense of it. Somebody pays for it. And so, who would pay for it? Somebody should pay for it! And that is the reason personally I’m in support of the education bank. Let us get enough funds for undergraduates. You want to study Medicine, Law, English or Economics and the university says it’s a lot of money that you will have to pay as tuition, what you can get from the bank can see you through the university. You go to the education bank, once you have the admission letter and you are given that money – N150,000.00, N250,000.00– and you pay to the university which will use that money to run the institution. In that way, you are not going back to the government every month. The students themselves borrow money which they will repay after graduation. It could take them 30 years, 40 years to pay back because it has zero per cent interest or single digit interest. In that way, there will always be money for the university.
Look at the private universities that don’t receive grants from the Federal Government. They run themselves with the fees that the students pay. If you go through that model, because you know that with the poverty level in the country, most families can’t afford the tuition fees of N250,000.00, N350,000.00, N500,000.00, then make loans available. There are some students who would say they don’t need the loans because their parents can sponsor them.
If we have to wait every time for the Federal Government to release big sum of money to the universities, we would keep going back to this strike.
What you are saying is that the universities should be independent without depending on government funding?
Yes. Universities should be autonomous. Government should give grants and corporations should give grants. For instance, there could be a floating period in which the universities would get themselves out of monthly grants from the government; somebody sitting in Abuja and paying the salary of a professor in Otuoke or in Lagos or somewhere in Delta. The Federal Government should give enough money to the universities for research. The corporations should do the same thing. Look at the ETF-NITEL funds that ASUU suggested – 2 per cent tax from all companies. That will be a good source of funding for the universities. But a situation where you send monthly bills to the university to pay salaries or you want to hire a professor, you go and get clearance from Abuja, will not work.
The civil servants in the ministry don’t understand that; they don’t understand the concept of sabbatical where you are working in two universities, you are on payroll, you appear twice. After six years, you are entitled to one year sabbatical leave to spend it anywhere. You contribute to knowledge over there and your salary is on here. This is because this is your place of primary assignment and your entitlements, according to the rules of engagement. It could be for nine months, it could be for six months or one year. All those things we need to be clearly worked out.
They should stop proliferations of universities! There is a state university in place that is not fully subscribed and there are private universities. And a politician wants to make a name for being the one that brought a federal university. It is because he sees free money, cheap money. He sees it as another source of employment. Instead of going into real production, they are going into the cheap areas. They should go into areas where they can attract investments. For instance, in a state, you have a transportation university; you have a federal university; You have a state university in the same city and all from one purse. You don’t need that!
The University of Lagos can run a transportation faculty and run it well and overhead costs are reduced because you have only one vice-chancellor who is running all of that, instead of going to create another university. Look at a state like Delta under Governor Ifeanyi Okowa that created five universities. That itself is exciting to academics that people would have more jobs, but can the state fund those universities? If the state feels that it can fund those universities, it is okay but the way it is, it is very difficult for a state to do that and it is not advisable. So far, Delta State and Lagos State have done that. Let us see how the experience will work out, whether they can fund those universities!
How would you end this interview?
Those in charge with power at the federal level should ensure that the people get the dividends of democracy. And when we say they should get the dividend of democracy, we are talking of security. We have to secure lives and properties, and we have to ensure that people can sleep with their two eyes closed and that people can travel. If you truncate travelling, it becomes dangerous to businessmen, and you are killing the economy.
Travelling from one point to the other is something that we used to do routinely. We would wake up, take a bus from Lagos midnight and in the next morning you are in Nsukka, you are in Sokoto and you do your business and come back home safely. Police should be on the streets and the roads. If it is true that those herdsmen who are harassing people across the country are not indigenous to Nigeria, the state has an obligation to deal ruthlessly with them.
We have been living with Fulani people all along. I grew up knowing Fulani herdsmen. There in Sapele, they would bring their cows and they are friendly. But suddenly, we have very hostile herdsmen and these are not Fulani men who are not indigenous to Nigeria who see us as foreigners and who have a different agenda. So, if that is the situation, we need to do something about that and it is the obligation of the Federal Government.
The Nigerian state is more important than individuals’ ego; all Nigerians should have a sense of belonging. Indeed, I believe in power rotation, I also believe in the power that is being sensitive to religions. Religion is becoming part of the national narrative, one part of the country claiming one religion than the other. And one part of the country sees itself as superior to the other. It is not true.
One section of the country doesn’t own the country more than the other. It is a federation and that is the reason Nigeria went to war in 1967. And sadly, politicians are beginning to create that environment for different parts of the country to be dissatisfied with the federal authority. We have it in the South-West, North East and in the North West. We have it even in the South, the IPOB and the rest. All these are tunes that are being created because the people are not satisfied with the federal system. The federal system needs to satisfy the constituent parts of the federation. That is very important.